CC’s contribution to the campaign to support LGBTQ youth
by Joel Minor, staff writer; illustrations by Annabel Wheeler, staff artist
A little more than four years ago, my grandmother sat down to breakfast with me and told me a story. It was about one of the altar boys at St. Patrick’s, the Catholic Church in La Junta, Colorado that she attended for the better part of sixty years. The altar boy had everything going for him. He was a talented singer, he was smart and he had a beautiful smile. Then, one day, he killed himself. “Everyone knew he was gay,” she said. But that wasn’t all she said. Even years later, I could still see how upset she was because of his death. “It was such a waste,” she continued, “God just wants more love in the world.”
It was exactly what I needed to hear. I was heading into my senior year of high school. For years, I’d been telling myself that I would like girls when I got older. I would repeat over and over to myself the phrase that I’d heard in a middle school sex ed video: “Everyone develops at a different rate—don’t worry if your friends’ voices change or if they grow beards before you.” But by age seventeen, I knew, deep down, that puberty had come and passed. For that matter, so did my grandma, whom I lived with at the time, and who had surely observed that I was far more interested in talking with her about “Fiddler On the Roof” than girls I had crushes on. Taking strength in her words and the support of my high school friends, I came out of the closet less than a year later and arrived at CC to find a welcoming and thriving queer community.
But the unfortunate reality is that there are millions of young people across the country who are not so lucky as to have an extremely prescient and tolerant grandmother. According to suicide.org, the website of a suicide awareness nonprofit, teenagers who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning or anything else outside of the heterosexual norm are four times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide. LGBTQ teens who have been rejected by their families are eight times more likely to commit suicide. An even more frightening statistic is that over half of individuals who identify as transgender attempt to kill themselves before the age of 20, and nearly a third will eventually do so. Suicide is nothing new to the LGBTQ community, but eight high profile suicides last month captured the national media’s attention.
Unlike ABC, CBS, and NBC, queer media outlets like the Advocate, a prominent newsmagazine devoted to the queer lifestyle, have covered high profile gay suicides, especially among teens, for years. So when I first read about the suicide of Rutgers first year Tyler Clementi, who jumped off of a bridge after his roommate secretly videotaped his sexual encounter with another man and posted the video on the internet, I was outraged. I wished that something positive could come from it, but I didn’t think much would come of it.
It turns out that I wasn’t the only one outraged. In response to the spate of suicides, sex columnist Dan Savage started what has already become one of the most inspirational enterprises I have ever encountered: the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetterproject.com). Savage and his partner, Terry, began the project by making a short, eight minute video message for LGBTQ teens facing bullying and intolerance titled “Stick It Out.” The message emphasizes that once you’re out of high school and into the real world, you can and will find a group of people that love and accept you for who you are. Dan and Terry created a website and invited other LGBTQ adults to record short messages directed toward youth who might be facing harassment and bullying at school. Within a few weeks, thousands of people—gay, trans, straight and everything in between—made their own videos.
Freshman Nate Bookout participated in CC’s contribution to the It Gets Better Project, expressing the feelings of sadness and outrage that many feel when they learn someone has killed themselves, regardless of whether he or she is a close friend or a total stranger. “Society feels it when someone dies. We lose a member of society, someone who could contribute ideas—all these things over something that’s so trivial. No one benefits from [harassment].”
It makes sense that the LGBTQ community has gone about dealing with the recent tragedies by publicly telling their personal stories. I learned in my LGBTQ literature class last block that a major component of the gay identity is the personal narrative—the story of discovering the truth behind one’s sexual orientation, facing oppression and marginalization, and then coming out of the closet into sexual liberation and personal and social acceptance. Just like every course in the liberal arts, I also learned that the components of the gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer identities are, in reality, much more complicated. But the tropes of personal recognition, marginalization and coming out remain powerful symbols in the lives of millions of LGBTQ Americans. And nothing captures the common threads of the LGBTQ identity more than the videos made for the It Gets Better Project.
The videos run the gamut from humorous to tragic. I found myself both laughing and crying from one video to the next, and sometimes both, during the course of a single video. A straight writer from New York talked about getting bullied in high school for loving musicals, lisping and dressing strangely. A lesbian farmer told of her feelings of isolation before realizing that her butch appearance and hardworking lifestyle made her hot in the eyes of the people that she truly cared about. An Atlanta rap artist talked about living in the closet for years until one day he stopped writing songs about wanting to fuck women and started writing songs about who he really was. Tim Gunn, the host of Project Runway and a major figure in the fashion world, spoke solemnly about his own attempted suicide. Ke$ha, looking remarkably ordinary in a T-shirt and relatively little makeup, gave a personal message of love and support to LGBTQ teens everywhere struggling with bullying.
Each of the videos shared a common theme: life can be hard when you’re different, especially in high school, but it’s more than worth it to stick it out. After high school, life gets a whole lot better. And there are millions of people who have gone through the same self-doubt, self-loathing and feelings of isolation that you have—and they’re out there, just waiting to give you a hug (maybe even a kiss) and tell you that they love you for who you are.
One of the videos that I saw my first day on the website was made by a college freshman. She was adorably nerdy with dyed-maroon hair and oversized glasses. With an air of jubilation, she proclaimed, “It gets better. You’ll leave those idiots from high school behind to flip burgers and come to college where there are SO MANY HOT GIRLS! And guys, too. At least I think so. I haven’t really been looking much at the guys.”
I was touched by how rapidly it seemed the girl’s life had turned around. I was still thinking about it later that day during a discussion about what events to hold at CC in honor of National Coming Out Day. We decided to follow the lead of the girl in the video and make CC’s own contribution to the It Gets Better Project. After further discussion, we also decided that rather than just submitting the video to itgetsbetter.com, we would use it to reach out LGBTQ youth in Colorado Springs.
Even if CC is a fairly tolerant and accepting place, Colorado Springs isn’t exactly San Francisco. The city is home to Ted Haggard, Focus on the Family, and thousands of soldiers and cadets who aren’t asking or telling. It can be a tough place to grow up gay. Fortunately, there is a support network for LGBTQ youth. Inside/Out Youth is a nonprofit that provides support services and social spaces for adolescents and young adults. It works closely with Urban Peak homeless shelter in Colorado Springs, because many of the young people who are a part of Inside/Out are homeless. In fact, nearly half of the homeless youth in Colorado Springs identify as LGBTQ. Many were kicked out of their homes by their families because of their sexuality. CC does a great deal of work with Inside/Out; last year, all of the proceeds from Drag Ball went to Inside/Out, and the Center for Service and Learning hosts occasional Saturdays of Service to help the program.
Members of Equal, a confidential social and support group for LGBTQ students, and the Queer-Straight Alliance, an activist organization open to all CC students, also wanted to help. QSA set up a video camera and tie-dye materials in front of Worner on National Coming Out Day, Monday, October 11. We filmed students, staff, and faculty sending short messages to Colorado Springs youth. Students had a variety of different messages, and their outpour of support was incredible.
“Stick it out—otherwise you can’t go to our awesome gay parties,” said freshman Nicole White. Senior Caitlin DeWolf said, “people back in high school are flipping burgers and getting pregnant, and I’m getting a college education.”
For others, making the videos was a more profound, cathartic experience. “I felt good—I felt like I really impacted people’s lives,” said junior Mandy Magninie.
As the filmmaker, White had the opportunity to hear every single contribution. “Most of the people were slightly embarrassed,” she said. “They felt like they hadn’t made a very big impact, but in the end I think they all did, because they all were very sincere.”
We shot nearly fifty individual clips to be edited and sent to Inside/Out Youth. Despite a number of high-profile homophobic incidents in the past few years, CC is a remarkably tolerant environment. Coming down from the excitement of enticing passersby into making video recordings, I felt extremely proud. Proud to be gay, and proud to be a CC student.
When it was my turn to go on camera, I told the story about my grandma’s message that “God just wants more love in the world.” Even though my personal coming out journey has been much less challenging than it might have been, it hasn’t always been easy. Like everyone else who has made a video, though, I genuinely meant it when I told the camera that life would get better. Even though being gay isn’t always easy, coming out of the closet—not having to lie about who I’m spending time with and being able to be open about who I am—is still one of the best decisions that I have ever made. That’s a message that I will share over and over again for the rest of my life.